Beginner's Luck

With most activities, there's a thick line between amateurs and pros. You might rule your local pickup court, but you wouldn't stand a chance against an NBA player. Think you're good at chess? Okay, smarty, why don't you butt heads with a master and then see how you feel? The same goes for running, painting, cooking and copulating -- there are pros, and then there's everyone else. But poker is different, democratic even. Anybody, anytime, can take down a professional and get rich in the process.

Witness Matt Dean, a 25-year-old from The Woodlands who made it all the way to seventh place in the main event of the 2004 World Series of Poker. He survived six days of play and ended up taking home $675,000 -- not bad for someone who was in the middle of a quarter-life crisis. "I was an accounting major, and then I didn't want to do accounting, so I went to law school," he says. "And then I dropped out of law school because I didn't like that, so I was substitute-teaching at Oak Ridge High School." But then he plopped down $32 to play in an online tournament and -- seven hours later -- he had a seat at the World Series.

He had only been playing for a little over two years when it all happened. "I just started when I was in college," he says, "but a year and a half ago, my best friend and I lived in South Carolina for the summer and just took poker really, really, really seriously…We were both about to start law school, so we decided to have the 'summer of fun' before then. But we couldn't get jobs as waiters because we'd never waited tables before, which we thought was ironic because we had college degrees, so we decided to make a living playing online poker. So all we did was play and talk about poker all day long."

Paying the bills by clicking away might have helped him hone his chops, but it couldn't prepare him for the stresses of big-time play. "The first day of the main event was the worst, because I'd never played in a big live tournament before, with more than, like, a $50 entry fee," he says. "So I was shaking, really freaked out. But maybe, like, an hour and a half in, everything slowed down. It was okay.

"I played so tight. Part of it was, when I told my friends I was in the World Series, I was kind of a hero, so I didn't want that to go away. I didn't want to get knocked out in the first hour."

He lasted longer than 2,569 other players, besting many a pro in the process. "That's the cool thing about poker," he says. "If you're a terrible player, you're not going to win the World Series, but if you're a decent player and the cards are running your way and the gods are smiling down on you, on any given day of the week you can beat the best in the world." -- Keith Plocek

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